La Belle et la Bête directed by Christophe Gans
If you’re going to adapt the fairy tale of “Beauty and the Beast”, you’d best make sure you do it properly, because you have to live up to the bar set by Jean Cocteau’s 1946 black-and-white film and Disney’s 1991 animated version — both classic films in their own right.
There’s also a challenge in adapting the original material, which essentially involves a loving father giving up his daughter to a monster to save his own skin, and a young girl being wooed by a terrifying beast who emotionally blackmails her into staying with him by insisting he’ll die without her.
How to make this material palatable to a modern audience? Director Christophe Gans’s secret weapon is actress Léa Seydoux, who plays Belle not as an attractive doormat succumbing to Stockholm Syndrome, but as a young woman who uses her guile, intelligence and beauty to get the upper hand over her beastly jailer. Far from being a love story, the courtship period between these two plays out more like a battle of wills, in which power continually tips back and forth between the lovely Belle and the brutish Beast (Vincent Cassel).
But I’ve gotten a little ahead of myself. The film is initially quite faithful to Jeanne-Marie de Beaumont’s original fairy tale (first published in 1756) by introducing a merchant and his six children (three boys, three girls) who have lost their fortune and been forced to relocate to a country cottage. After getting lost in the forest, the merchant stumbles across a crumbling and seemingly deserted palace filled with food, wine and treasure.
Before leaving the next morning he plucks a rose in the garden for his daughter Belle, and with this act a terrible Beast appears, demanding to know why his hospitality has been repaid with thievery. The Beast proposes a deal: if one of the merchant’s children is willing to take his place at the castle, the transgression will be forgiven. Naturally, it is Belle who decides to sacrifice herself, sneaking out of the cottage one morning to travel to the Beast’s castle.
It’s at this point the film strays away from the traditional format of the fairy tale, adding plenty of subplots that are unique to this particularly retelling. Belle is guided around the palace by a mysterious cloud of golden mist that occasionally transforms into a deer, revealing the Beast’s backstory and the sequence of events that led to him being transformed into a monster (I won’t give away any details, but it’s very much like something out of Greek mythology).
Furthermore, one of Belle’s older brothers is a gambler, and heavily indebted to a dangerous crook called Perducas. The film’s final act involves Perducas, his thugs, and his fortune-teller girlfriend storming the beast’s castle in search of treasure, only to be menaced by stone giants that the Beast conjures to life.
Unfortunately, these subplots threaten to overshadow what should be the crux of any Beauty and the Beast retelling: the love story. As it is, we’re never given a clear idea why exactly this headstrong Belle should even like, let alone fall in love with, the demanding and temperamental Beast (unlike in the Disney film, his behaviour never really improves over the course of the film), to the point where her declaration of love feels as though it comes out of nowhere.
But the finished product looks beautiful, from the wintry forest that surrounds the perpetual summer of the Beast’s garden, to the jewel-like tones of Belle’s gowns as she explores the ruined opulence of the castle, to the simple image of a red rose lying on a pure white handkerchief. Only the presence of several CGI beagles, warped into what look like grotesque bobble-heads, is a strain of whimsy that looks completely out of place.
Its undeniable beauty is reason enough to see La Belle et la Bête at least once, as is Léa Seydoux’s performance as a Beauty who has teeth and claws of her own. Vincent Cassel is a little short-changed, hidden as he is behind motion capture “make-up” and a lack of substantial character development, though there’s a nice twist on expectations in regards to where he and Belle end up living.
It doesn’t meet the standards of its predecessors, but it’s a beautiful, mysterious film that’s worthy of at least one viewing.